Interview: Sarah Clegg, MD John Menzies Digital: Publishers Too Cautious On Digital Editions

imageWhatever your views on how to keep the magazine business afloat, with UK sales shrinking by 95 million last year according to the PPA, it’s pretty clear something must be done. Sarah Clegg, MD of John Menzies Digital, thinks she has a solution – the digital replica editions her company produces for 11 publishers including IPC Media and BBC Worldwide. Problem is, she told me, the industry doesn’t agree – publishers would rather invest to boost their headline ABC print circulation figures than in digital development

Clegg: “To my knowledge, there has been no interest whatsoever from any ad team in any publisher in what is being sold in digital editions. It’s a chicken and egg situation because there’s not enough critical mass to sell. But we have to start somewhere.”

John Menzies Digital launched in April last year, former Emap publisher Clegg joined in September from digital magazine rival Zinio and the the service has distributed 85,000 copies to date from its catalogue of 140 titles. That’s a tiny figure, considering Britain’s large – if diminishing – appetite for consumer mags.

Clegg admits that e-editions — which, to many, seem clunky in the age of web-based content — are still in their infancy, though she counters that JMD’s reader can support video and audio files. She concedes that they are not currently impacting on publishers’ profits so far and her division, which has five staff, is not yet returning a profit for parent company John Menzies. If the company sells between 100 and 150 copies per title, per week, by Christmas that will be considered a success.

But sales are growing at 27 percent per week and Clegg has just signed a deal to distribute 16 titles from NatMags, its eleventh big magazine house deal, promoted through from this week. So Clegg may be justified in saying there is renewed interest in what her team is doing.

Partnerships: John Menzies Digital wants to get its e-reader software pre-loaded into laptop PCs and notebooks. It would offer laptop buyers a free subscription or one-off downloads to as many as 20 titles in return for getting a very large audience to try the service. No names on possible partners but JMD’s technology partner is HDS Digital, a division of the French Lagardere Group which also runs mag download site HDS has signed a deal to have its reader technology pre-loaded on to Samsung’s netbooks in France and Clegg says she’ll be “looking to replicate that here”. JMD already has white label technology provision deals with ASDA, WH Smiths ITV. Clegg is developing closer e-commerce links with Asda, and will soon place “click to buy” URLs in magazines to relevant goods on the supermarket’s online store and considering bring books to its site.

Cautious on e-editions: “There’s been a huge resistance to putting any resources behind this from publishers; people don’t want to cannibalise their ABC figure,” she says. It’s a far cry from the book industry, where e-readers commonly come pre-loaded with tens of free books. Clegg points to IPC Media as one publisher which is promoting JMD’s digital edition alongside its print edition for mags like Nuts, something “that wouldn’t have happened a year ago”.

But do advertisers see it the same way? Clegg is bullish: “If you’re selling 50,000 copies of NME in an edition, don’t tell me an advertiser won’t buy into it. I don’t think they would care (about the platform).” NME, of course, is not selling 50,000 copies digitally but is part-way through a three-month free download trial. Clegg points out JMD reader has on- and offline, Flash-based audio and video capabilities, but no sales department has sold multimedia advertising so far.


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